Killing Trees for Cyberspace

At his CTO Vision blog my friend and colleague Bob Gourley found a fair amount of good in the new Cyber Strategy. Me, I see a glass half empty . . .

Let me start out by saying that I really would like to see some progress in this realm, and if this latest attempt at a strategy to secure cyberspace is what leads to progress than all the better for us.

My problem is less with any specific part of the strategy as it is with the whole idea of yet-another-strategy in the first place. Let me be perfectly clear: there is absolutely no reason to believe that any substantial, widespread good will come of this document. This is not our first rodeo . . .

. . . and yet by all measures we are no better off today than we were decades ago when the issues identified in the strategy were first brought up. The advance and ubiquity of information technology has both broadened the scope of problems and simultaneously made them more intimate. We have serious problems that need to be dealt with now, but we’re spending our time congratulating ourselves on a great piece of staff work that may never be realized.

A national or international strategy makes a number of presumptions, or simply ignores reality, which is the principle reason why such efforts fail. The Internet is not an instrument of national power in the traditional sense; such power rests in the hands of private concerns. The dominant forces online care not a wit for political or military concerns – the domain of nation-states – but for revenue and profitability (alien concepts to governments). Even the most prolific threat actors in cyberspace today pose no serious threat to the ‘Net itself (you can’t make money if connectivity goes away). As long as there is a patsy to off-load the risks of doing business online (read: consumers), and as long as the pain those patsies suffer is nominal, there is no incentive to invest in a safer cyberspace.

The strategy articulates a vision: A cyberspace that is filled with innovations, interoperable, secure enough and reliable enough. Great, except that’s pretty much the state of affairs today, so I guess that’s a ‘win.’ Do you know how we got that win? Aside from tracing the ‘Net’s roots back to ARPANET, it had nothing to do with government action. The prosperity that we would attempt to assure is already here and will continue to exist because of market forces, not legislation or international agreement.

That a strategy may be actionable is of little consequence if there is no incentive to act. To be more precise: when there is no penalty for failure, what do you think agencies and their leadership are going to focus on? Despite past federal efforts to “secure” cyber space, agencies consistently get failing grades, and no one is held accountable. I only know of one (State-level) cyber security official to have ever been fired, and that wasn’t because he was negligent, but because he spoke out of school. Lesson: it’s OK to get pwned, it’s not OK to admit you got pwned (because, you know, no one else is getting pwned so we might look bad).

I know this is the best effort that those involved could produce. If anyone was going to get it drafted, coordinated, and out the door it was going to be Howard. I will do what I can to help realize the goals of a safer cyber space and I would like to think that this time we’re going to see some forward progress, but almost two decades of witnessing ‘fail’ in this area precludes me from holding my breath.

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